South of the border patrol: When I visit decent places like Don Quijote (see review above), I realize there's no excuse for serving lousy Mexican food. Since the ingredients for most Mexican dishes are inherently cheap, the difference comes down to a willingness to take the extra step involved in making, say, a piece of cheap skirt steak less tough by learning how to cook it.
Don Quijote goes the distance. Many other places don't.
My quest for good Mexican food recently took me to Vallarta, a year-old eatery at 1080 South Wadsworth Boulevard in Lakewood that had been highly recommended by a caller--but I think the place still has a ways to go. Although the sauces and ingredients were above average, Vallarta fell short on many of the details. For example, it was hard to ignore the previous day's fried tortilla chips, since eating them was like eating shreds from a shoe box; not even the watery swill passing for salsa could moisten these hunks of cardboard. And it was disappointing to find a great sauce like the extra-hot mole on the camarones a la diabla ($8)--technically, diabla translates to "any old how," so I'm not sure if Vallarta meant that or diablo, which means "devil"--covering shrimp that obviously had been cooked hours before and then reheated, leaving them tough and chewy. And since they hadn't been cooked in the sauce, the shrimp and the "diabla" never merged into one dish.
Vallarta's carne adobado ($6) also lacked coherence: The adobado marinade on the thick, fatty pork slices was completely overwhelmed by the bland green chile that covered everything on the plate, including the refried beans and the strange rice mixed with peas, potatoes, corn and carrots.
Paying a little attention to the little things would help Vallarta big-time. And while they're at it, they should dump the margarita pie ($1.50). We were intrigued by the sign on the table instructing us to "ask your server to 'pour' you a slice!" But instead of the promised "South of the Border Specialty Featuring Gold Tequila," we got a slice of lame Key lime pie in a bad crust, topped with meringue so hard we could bounce a spoon off it. And we did.
My Mexican-food quest also netted disappointing results at San Marcos, a new place at 3158 Larimer Street--not the easiest location for building traffic. Sadly, the food isn't going to help attract clientele: We got the same old swampy plates filled with variations on a taco-enchilada-burrito-fajitas theme we've seen a million times elsewhere, complete with fatty, overcooked skirt steak, dried-out chicken, gloppy beans, greasy green and too much shredded lettuce. The only redeeming dish was the chiles rellenos plate ($5.30), which brought gooey, cheese-packed poblanos in an unusual fried, crisp-edged shell. Oh, and the chips and salsa were good.
The inside poop: No Mexican restaurants are listed in the Denver section of The Chefs Guide to America's Best Restaurants, but then again, there are only three Denver restaurants listed at all. A slim compendium of eateries that "top chefs" in the country supposedly eat at when they're not slaving away in their own kitchens, the roster was compiled and edited by Charles Dale, the nationally known chef of Aspen's Renaissance. Not surprisingly, Aspen's section is larger than Denver's, where only Barolo Grill (3030 East Sixth Avenue), Mel's Bar & Grill (235 Fillmore Street) and New Saigon (630 South Federal Boulevard) rated mentions.
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Interestingly, all 169 chefs who made suggestions for the book just happen to work at restaurants across the country that are so popular, so excellent and so noteworthy that they just happen to be included in the book. Yeah, right. The only reason to waste $11.95 on this chummy collection is if you're in another city and can't find a phone book.
Free advertising: Jax, at 1539 17th Street, should be on the list of anyone who eats out in Denver. For its first fall, it has a new fall menu, with such intriguing dishes as baked oysters with apple bacon, sherry vinegar, wilted spinach and bleu cheese (hope you can taste the oyster) and salmon wrapped in grape leaves with Moroccan spices, lemon couscous and roasted eggplant relish. And Cliff Young's, at 700 East Seventh Avenue, along with next-door sister Vino Vino, have new menus, too, and the specials are flying. Hmmm. First there's the birthday club, where customers receive their age as a discount (you're 70, you get 70 percent off) and a free glass of wine. Then there's the early-dining special, where from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday it's two-fer-one on all food purchases. And if you're a big spender, dining at either restaurant garners "frequent diner" miles that can be used on United Airlines. One caveat: The miles are only transferable in increments of 500, so live it up.
Brew news: The bad news is that Tabernash Brewing Company, at 205 Denargo Market, lost brewmaster Eric Warner to some brewery in Michigan. The good news is that before he left, Warner taught Paul Marczyk how to brew the wonderful Weiss beer and all of the other fine brews Tabernash is known for. Warner remains an owner, but Marczyk is now head brewer.